Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by
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Prompted By Children's Books

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I am not going to write about The Wizard of Oz, which I may or may not have read. I just like the Elton John song.

Looking back at all these treasured books, it's hard to find any unifying theme. Why did I love them so much? I don't know.

This prompt seemed overwhelming to me. I felt as if I could go on and on for hours about books that I loved when I was a child, as well as books I loved reading to my children, some of which were the same, and many of which were different. To create some kind of framework, I decided to look through my bookshelves to see which books from my own childhood I still had in my possession. I don’t even know how it is that I have these books now. I certainly didn’t bring them to California when I came out to go to law school. My parents must have sent them to me at some point, maybe at the same time they sent me all my Mad Magazines.

The Princess and the Goblin is probably the oldest book I have. It was published in 1913, and appears to be a first edition, although if it was ever valuable, I suspect the white splotches on the cover have ruined that. I tried to wash them off, but they have been there for at least 65 years, if not closer to 100, and it was impossible. As you can see, the title page has a stamp from the NYC Board of Education dated 1925. I loved this story about a little princess named Irene, her fairy grandmother, Curdie the miner’s son, and the nasty goblins who want to kidnap Irene and make her marry the goblin prince. I read it countless times during my childhood and am still drawn to it now.

 

Two trilogies that I loved were the Heidi books (featured image), and Little Women and its sequels. As you can see, the covers of the Heidi books are much the worse for wear, probably from being read so many times. Everyone knows the basic Heidi story, but I also treasured the sequels, seeing Heidi grow up, become a teacher, marry Peter, have children and so much more.

My copy of Little Women has lost its paper cover entirely. I must admit that I found Little Men tiresome, because it was all about boys, but then in Jo’s Boys, despite the title, there are a few girl characters again. However, Little Women was certainly my favorite of the three, and one of my favorite books of all time. No matter how many times I read it, I always cried when Beth died. This is a book I wanted to share with my children, and I did, and I remember telling myself that I MUST NOT cry when I read that chapter, but when I got to the line “in the dark hour before dawn, on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last,” I couldn’t help it, I just broke down. The kids did not seem moved by her death, and probably just thought it was weird that I was crying about something that happened in a book.

Another wonderful trilogy was the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle lives in an upside-down house, and while she has no children of her own, all the neighborhood children come to her with their problems, which she helps them solve. She is a little bit magical, like Mary Poppins. (I also loved reading all the Mary Poppins books [so much better than the movie!] but I don’t seem to have them any more.) The first two Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books were wonderfully illustrated by Hilary Knight, the same man who illustrated the Eloise books. The third book was illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and the people he drew were not as loveable in my opinion. Mary Poppins first came out in 1934, and Mrs. Piggle Wiggle in 1947, so I wonder if Betty McDonald was influenced at all by P.L.Travers.

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew was a rags to riches story, about a poor family with five children who work hard and don’t complain, but then are taken under the wing of a rich gentleman who takes an interest in them after the youngest child is kidnapped by an organ grinder. I never knew until now that it is the first book in a series, and there are a total of twelve books. They were written between 1881 and 1916, which explains a lot about how quaint they are (an organ grinder? really?), but as a child it never occurred to me to wonder about that. This is actually the last book I ever read to my two older children, and we never finished it because they lost interest. The bookmark is still in the place where we left off, page 146 (out of 275 pages), because I hoped for a long time that they would come back to it.

Five Children and It was another turn-of-the-century book (published in 1902) that I read over and over. It takes place in England, and is about another family of five children, although they are not poor like the Peppers. These children find a magical creature called a Psammead when they are playing in a gravel pit (playing in a gravel pit? really?). The Psammead agrees to grant them one wish per day, but the wishes end at sunset. Of course everything they wish for turns out badly, such as wishing for the baby brother to grow up quickly and then he turns into a selfish, smug young man who they don’t like. Fortunately at sunset he turns back into a baby. Finally “It” leaves them, but their final wish is that they will meet again someday, and It promises that this wish will be granted.

My last favorite book that you probably never heard of is Bertram and His Fabulous Animals. In this book from 1937, Bertram encounters a different animal in every chapter, and while at first it seems wonderful, things invariably go wrong (hmm, just like in Five Children and It). Bertram has to consult with various friends and relatives who give him advice (usually bad) on how to get rid of the animal. In most cases, Bertram’s father comes home from a business trip to Omaha at the end of the chapter and saves the day.

Looking back at all these treasured books, it’s hard to find any unifying theme. Why did I love them so much? I don’t know. From these books I went on to Nancy Drew, and then to Dostoevsky (see Paperback Writer). So it all turned out okay.

 

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Characterizations: , funny, moving, well written

Comments

  1. Marian says:

    What a variety of older books, Suzy! I did read most of the Oz books at one point, and Heidi. Thanks for pointing out the illustrations on Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and mentioning Eloise. Eloise is one of my all-time favorites. I just loved each room in the Plaza Hotel!

    • Suzy says:

      Eloise is a favorite of mine too, but I’m not sure if I read her when I was a child, or just when my children were. I did take each of my children to the Plaza Hotel when she (or he!) was 6 years old and took their picture with the giant portrait of Eloise they have there. The first time, with Sabrina, we went to tea in the Palm Court and ordered “gugelhopfen” but it was very expensive and not that tasty, so I didn’t do that with the others.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    It seems a number of us haven’t been able to relinquish those childhood books, worn and tattered though they be. I had forgotten about Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and thanks for reminding me about her! The picture from the Princess and the Goblin was lovely—they really had some great illustrators back in the day. I think that many of the modern fantasy stories are just reworking and maybe updating of the old myths and fairy tales that entranced us.

    • Suzy says:

      Funny to realize in writing this story that I have these beloved books, but no memory of how they came from New Jersey to California. Just glad I have them. I could write a second story about the newer books I loved reading to my children, but I probably won’t.

  3. Beth dies?!? Next you’re going to tell me that Charlotte dies, too.

    Being one of five children, I also loved The Five Little Peppers but never heard of Five Children and It, nor (you’re right), Bertram.

    Loved Heidi and Little Women, but never read the sequels for some reason.

    As Khati mentioned, some great illustrators back in the day…I have an old copy of Tales of the Arabian Nights (as much for adults as for children) with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish. But I think children’s book illustrations are some of the best even today. I’ve bought several over the years just for the artwork…and still have them.

    I always have to wonder about children’s books that are still in pristine condition. Were they never read, or only by parents with strict hands-off rules? All of my children’s books are worn out with reading and touching…the way they should be!

    • Suzy says:

      Lol, Barb, sorry for the spoiler. Guess I should have put a warning on my story.

      I agree that there are modern illustrators who are just as wonderful as the ones in our day, and I can imagine buying children’s books for the artwork.

      I have to admit that with some of my children’s favorite books I took the paper covers off so that they wouldn’t get all ripped and tattered. But then I never put them back on, so now I have a pile of book covers and I’m not sure where the books are or whether we even still have them.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    What a great collection of books, Suzy. Thanks so much for sharing the memories — and, indeed, the book covers themselves. I’m so glad that, somehow, these books followed you to California. But, yes, unlike the rest, Bertram is a new one for me. I’ll be sure to remember it if I ever get lucky enough to have grandchildren. (Grand dogs aren’t such good listeners.)

    And I know of many others who cried about Beth’s death — hardly a spoiler! In almost all cases, not surprisingly, it was girls. For boys to cry, it seems that Old Yeller dying in the movie was the trick. And probably Charlotte for both sexes.

    • Suzy says:

      John, I’m in the same “if I ever get lucky enough to have grandchildren” boat, and I wonder what will happen to all these books if I don’t. My grand-cat listens, but it’s hard to talk with her about the themes.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    How lucky you are to have these books and to have shared them with your children. I remember some of them (Heidi, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, The 5 Little Peppers, and of course Eloise). I think the version of Heidi and Eloise I read with my kids were my old books. I also have some of my books of fairy tales, but not much else. My parents must have tossed them. Thanks for this great trip down memory lane.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, thank you for great reminders of books I’d forgotten about (Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle). I SO loved reading those books to my kids and had forgotten all about them. I never read Heidi, just saw Shirley Temple every year. Your “The Princess and the Goblin” is quite the treasure. And, as Khati points out, the illustrations on so many of these books are just exquisite, really art forms.

    I confess, even reading your words today, I choked up AGAIN with Beth’s death. Gets me every time. Even in the movies. As I wrote in my earlier story, I went through a phase of asking my parents to call me Beth, out of sympathy and admiration for the doomed girl. I do love to go to Orchard House (their actual home) out in Concord, MA.

    I, too, loved Nancy Drew. I have one old book in my basement. My kids were never into her, nor the Hardy Boys (my brother was). She feels like ancient history now.

    Thanks for this great, loving tribute to a voracious reader.

    • Suzy says:

      Sorry for getting you choked up with the words of Beth’s death scene. It gets me every time too. I’m surprised you never read Heidi. I only saw the Shirley Temple movie once, and did not like it nearly as well as the book (but that’s often the way if you read the book first). Did you see Greta Gerwig’s Little Women? I thought she did an amazing job of reinterpreting a classic.

      Sabrina liked Nancy Drew, but by Molly’s time, 11 years later, she was ancient history, as you say.

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        Of course I saw Gerwig’s version of Little Women. I liked aspects of it, though found her timeline confusing at points (Dan was with me and he couldn’t follow it all, which perhaps colored my own view). I’ve always been partial to the Winona Ryder version, which doesn’t cover all the bases that Gerwig’s movie does, but covers the Professor Bhaer part more fully, IMHO. I watched the June Allyson version earlier this year. Gosh, SO dated.

        • Suzy says:

          My husband was confused too, because it did tend to jump around. But I loved it, and especially her interpretation of Prof. Bhaer’s relationship with Jo and whether or not she marries him.

  7. Interesting to cogitate on the motif of those “poor kids rescued by a rich man” and how it fits so well into the ideology of bourgeois capitalism. Another series that may have come out just a decade or two later than the “Peppers” books was the BOXCAR CHILDREN–same motif.

    I grew up down the street from a gravel pit, and although I never played in it, the notion of playing in it would have sounded fun and exotic! I could only have wished! (Later, the pit turned into an artificial lake with luxury homes built around it.)

    Finally, thank you for not profiling the Wizard of Oz as a great piece of children’s literature. It certainly has its place in “the canon,” but in my opinion, that’s mostly because the movie was so great! Much better than the book!

    • Suzy says:

      I never read (or even heard of) the Boxcar Children in my own childhood, but my kids absolutely loved them, and we collected the first 50 or so books in the series, which I just recently gave away. Of course they only live in the boxcar in the first book, because then their rich grandfather adopts them and takes them on all kinds of adventures. You’re right about bourgeois capitalism, I hadn’t thought of it that way.

  8. Wonderful Suzy that you kept all those old editions! I loved Heidi and altho not sure I read the sequels, am not surprised she married Peter! As a child I remember being taken with the fact she wore all those layers of dresses when she went up the mountain to meet her grandfather.

    Do you remember The Most Wonderful Doll in the World? The doll is lost and the little girl remembers (actually mis-remembers!) how wonderful the doll was and how many doll dresses she had – and that was before Barbie!

    Thinking about Heidi I realize I read it to my little sister but altho I loved it I never read it to my son, I guess I thought it was a girl’s book. Not a PC attitude nowadays!

    • Suzy says:

      Never heard of The Most Wonderful Doll in the World. Reading about it online, it doesn’t sound like a book that I or my kids would have been drawn to.

      Since I had a girl and a boy relatively close in age, I read books to both of them together, so there was no such thing as girl books or boy books. They both listened to Little Women, Heidi, whatever. Once they were reading on their own, of course, their tastes may have diverged.

  9. Risa Nye says:

    This one brought back some great memories, Suzy. I was a constant reader as a kid and loved many of these, including Five Children and It. I also read a series of books about magic, in which a group of (unsupervised) children had adventures. It turned out that my husband read all those books too (Half Magic is one of the series), something we discovered when we were dating! I also loved The One-of-a-Kind family books.

    • Suzy says:

      I’m so glad you were a fan of Five Children and It, I don’t know too many people who know about it. I’m sorry I wasn’t aware of the Tales of Magic books, either in my own childhood or for my kids. All the reviews of them are glowing, and someone even compares them to E. Nesbit, who, of course, wrote Five Children and It.

  10. Wow, Suzy, what a wonderful story. I had never heard of some of these books, but I wish I had! If I am ever lucky enough to have grandchildren, I have a ready-made reading list. I certainly understand why you cried when reading about Beth’s death. As you know, I have the same tendency to cry in one particular spot in another book. How sweet and a little sad that you still have the bookmark in Five Little Peppers–that special time when they love being read to passes by too quickly. Thanks for an enjoyable and educational story.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Joan, glad you liked it. Yes, it was sad when they didn’t want to be read to any more, and didn’t even want to find out how that book ended. I guess it was too old-fashioned for them, having been written 100 years before they were born. I miss those days. I guess that’s why people like having grandchildren so much.

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